“Spiritual Profitability.” Philemon 1-21. 9/4/2016. 

What’s it going to take for the Lord to turn a profit in our lives? Are we willing to lay it all out for the Lord?

Today, let’s learn about one of the lesser known characters from the Bible. His name is Onesimus, and we find out just a little about him in our reading today from the book of Philemon. Philemon was from Colossae, a small town about 25 miles inland from Ephesus, a major seaport in Asia Minor. Onesimus was a slave in the household of Philemon, and I’ve reimagined his story to add some detail to what might have happened.

You might know me as Onesimus, but you might be interested in knowing that my name means “profit,” not a prophet who is a spokesman for God, but a profit in the sense that a good investment is one that makes a profit. My father had a successful business and always had an eye to the profit and loss column in his accounts. He was so pleased when I was born, that he called me, his little profit. 

I wasn’t at all as good a businessman was my father, so when I inherited the business after his death, I quickly ran it into the ground. I had to borrow money to stay afloat, but I had one failed investment after another. When I was finally called to account by my creditors, I had nothing to pay. They threw me into prison for debt, and when no one came to redeem me, I was sold to Philemon from Colossae.

Of course, I hated being a slave. Philemon was a good master as far as that goes. He didn’t mistreat me, and the work he gave me to do wasn’t hard for a healthy young man such as I was. Nevertheless I hated being a slave.

While I was there, a new religion came to town. A preacher named Epaphras brought news of one called ‘the Christ,’ in whom could be found forgiveness for the past and hope for the future. The number of followers in this Christ was growing by leaps and bounds in Ephesus. I was more interested in getting ahead in this world than the next, so it meant nothing to me. Philemon became a follower of this Christ, and one day while he was gone to a meeting, I broke into his office, took money from his strong box, and ran away.  

I made my way to Rome. One thing about runaway slaves is that they can’t go to the countryside or to a small town. Everybody knows everybody in those places. They have to go somewhere big enough to get lost in, and Rome was the biggest city of all. There were people coming and going all the time. The money I took lasted for a while, but soon I was down on my luck again. This time I couldn’t borrow any money, so I stole it. I got caught, and I was thrown in prison.  

While there, I had time to think about my life. I had pretty well wasted every opportunity that had come my way. My life seemed all loss, and no profit whatever. When I found out that some of my cell mates were also followers of the Christ, I began to pay attention. Wouldn’t you know, it was that same Paul who had preached in Ephesus! I accepted the message of the Gospel, and became a follower of Christ myself. I had learned to be a personal servant under my master, Philemon, and I used those skills to serve Paul.  

Eventually, Paul found out my background, and when we got out of jail, he said I needed to go to Philemon and confess what I had done. I knew that meant I might be sent to prison or worse, but I wanted my life to be different now, no matter what it cost. Paul had written some letters to the churches in Asia, and also a personal note to Philemon about me. I didn’t want to leave, but Paul insisted and sent me off.

Several weeks later I arrived at the door of Philemon’s house. You can imagine his surprise. He never expected to see me again! He’d lost money on me as a servant, and even more as a thief. As an investment, I had been very unprofitable to him.  

He was amazed when I handed him Paul’s letter. In it, the Apostle had written that I had become more like a son than a servant to him, but that he had sent me back because it was the right thing to do. I could be a slave again, if that’s what Philemon wanted, but Paul urged him to accept me in the Lord for love’s sake. In that way, even though I had been unprofitable as a servant, I could finally live up to my name, and become profitable as a brother in Christ. To cover any losses Philemon had experienced because of me, Paul said to Philemon to put it on his account. He would repay whatever I owed. 

Philemon did accept me as brother and forgave me. I was no longer a servant, but a fellow Christian. The Lord’s investment in me had finally turned a profit. 

And that’s the way it is for all of us. The Lord has much riding on us: we all have talents and opportunities, but are we turning a profit for the Lord? Does Jesus get more out of us than he has put into us? That’s the definition of profitability: what’s left over after all the costs have been paid. God has accepted us in Christ and has frankly forgiven us. Our salvation may be free to us, but it cost God everything. If the Lord is going to show a profit in our lives, we need to give back what we have been given, and then some. It will take everything we’ve got.  

We pray. Dear Lord, all that we are and everything we have is a gift from you. Show us by Your Spirit to turn our lives and our possessions into a blessing to others. We ask this for the sake of Him Who gave everything for us, Amen.


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